Abbildungen der Seite

jest and pleasantry, and those of necessary business, the idioms or peculiar phrases into which words naturally run, the proverbs, which are the condensed and pointed sense of the people, the participles, on which our syntax depends, and which are of perpetual recurrence ;--all these foundations of a language are more decisive proofs of the Saxon origin of ours than even the great majority of Saxon words in writing, and the still greater majority in speaking. In all cases where we have preserved a whole family of words, the superior significancy of a Saxon over a Latin term is most remarkable. Well-being arises from well-doing," is a Saxon phrase which may be thus rendered into the Latin part of the language:* Felicity attends virtue :" but how inferior in force is the latter ! In the Saxon phrase the parts or roots of words being significant in our language, and familiar to our eyes and ears, throw their whole meaning into the compounds and derivations, while the Latin words of the same import, having their roots and elements in a foreign language, carry only a cold and conventional signification to an English ear. It must not be a subject of wonder that language should have many closer connections with the thoughts and feelings which it denotes, than our philosophy can always explain. As words convey these elements of the character of each particular mind, so the structure and idioms of a language, those properties of it which being known to us only by their effect, we are obliged to call its spirit and genius, seem to represent the character or assemblage of qualities which distinguish one people from others. As at the beginning of these remarks we freely observed on the shallow pedantry which sought its own favourite system realised in the Saxon government, so we shall conclude them by remarking, that those who look below the surface of forms and institutions, will discover, that the spirit of equity and freedom breathed into our government by the Saxons, has never entirely departed from us ; that a considerable disparity of rank has been reconciled by us as it was by them, with nearer or more distant approaches to legal equality ; and that we follow their example is still employing regal and aristocratical temperaments to render the ascendancy of the people more safe for public order, and therefore more ensured against dangerous attack.'-vol. i. pp. 81–83.

Into the general subject of Saxon literature, Sir James would of course have been prevented, by the want of space, from entering, even if he had not confessed the inadequacy of his attainments in that respect. We cordially concur with him in lamenting the humiliating contrast of the labour bestowed by the continental nations on the legends of Iceland, with the incurious disregard with which the English nation have hitherto treated the literary monuments of their forefathers. From this theme the author passes to the contemporary literature of Wales, and Scotland, and Ireland. We can only transcribe his observations upon Ossian, and Mr. O'Connor's edition of the valuable Irish Chronicles.

• The Scottish chroniclers are too late to be sufficient authorities on this period, in which we know nothing certainly from them but the general fact of the union of the Scots and Picts under a Scottish dynasty. The Celtic tribes were celebrated for the love of poetry, The old songs of every people, which bear the impress of their character, and of which the beauties, whether few or many, must be genuine, because they arise only from feeldramatic poems.


ing, have always been valued by men of masculine and comprehensive taste. Some fragments of the songs of the Scottish Highlanders of very uncertain antiquity, appear to have fallen into the hands of Macpherson, a young man of no mean genius, unacquainted with the higher criticism applied to the genuineness of ancient writings, and who was too much a stranger to the studious world to have learnt those refinements which extend probity to literature as well as to property. Elated by the praise not unjustly bestowed on some of these fragments, instead of ensuring a general assent to them by a publication in their natural state, he unhappily applied his talents for skilful imitation, to complete poetical works in a style similar to the fragments, and to work them into the unsuitable shape of epic and

• He was not aware of the impossibility of poems, preserved only by tradition, being intelligible, after thirteen centuries, to readers who knew only the language of their own times; and he did not perceive the extravagance of peopling the Caledonian mountains in the fourth century with a race of men so generous and merciful, so gallant, so mild, and so magnanimous, that the most ingenious romances of the age of chivalry could not have ventured to represent a single hero as on a level with their common virtues. He did not consider the prodigious absurdity of inserting, as it were, a people thus advanced in moral civilization, between the Britons, ignorant and savage as they are painted by Cæsar, and the Highlanders, fierce and rude as they are presented by the first accounts of the chroniclers of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Even the better part of the Scots were, in the latter period, thus spoken of:-"In Scotland ye shall find no man lightly of honour or gentleness: they be like wyld and savage people.” The great historian who made the annals of Scotland a part of European literature, had sufficiently warned his countrymen against such faults by the decisive observation that their forefathers were unacquainted with the art of writing, which alone preserves language from total change, and great events from oblivion. Macpherson was encouraged to overleap these and many other improbabilities by youth, talent, and applause: perhaps he did not at first distinctly present to his mind the permanence of the deception. It is more probable, and it is a supposition countenanced by many circumstances, that after enjoying the pleasure of duping so many critics, he intended one day to claim the poems as his own; but if he had such a design, considerable obstacles to its execution arose around him. loaded with so much praise that he seemed bound in honour to his admirers not to desert them. The support of his own country appeared to render adherence to those poems, which Scotland inconsiderately sanctioned as a sort of national obligation. Exasperated, on the other hand, by the, perhaps, unduly vehement, and sometimes very coarse attacks made on him, he was unwilling to surrender to such opponents. He involved himself at last so deeply, as to leave him no decent retreat. Since the keen and searching publication of Mr. Laing, these poems have fallen in reputation, as they lost the character of genuineness. They had been admired

[ocr errors]

He was

* •Mr. Laing himself admitted that Macpherson was a man of truly poetical genius, and that much of the poems is of no inconsiderate merit; and even adds, that he read them with pleasure after the detection. Yet no one will number a feeble administration of literary justice among the

[ocr errors]

by all the nations and by all the men of genius in Europe. The last incident in their story is perhaps the most remarkable. In an Italian version, which softened their defects, and rendered their characteristic qualities faint, they formed almost the whole poetical library of Napoleon ;-a man who, whatever may be finally thought of him in other respects, must be owned to be, by the transcendent vigour of his powers, entitled to a place in the first class of human minds. No other imposture in literary history approaches them in the splendour of their course.

They have, however, thrown a colour of fraud over Celtic poetry which is not likely to be effaced: for the Irish and Scotch are not even yet likely to join their exertions for the recovery, literal translation, and impartial illustration of such fragments of the ancient songs of both these nations as are still extant. The fragments published in Ireland by Miss Brooke, in 1789, are, indeed, commendable for retaining the form of fragments; for not making too confident pretensions to high antiquity, and for not attempting to remove those anachronisms which the unlettered bards could hardly escape. But the translations give no picture of bardic style; they relate to Irish events of former days; but they are written in the prevalent style of a very modern age.

'In one respect Irish history has been eminently fortunate. The chronicles of Ireland, written in the Irish language, from the second century to the landing of Henry Plantagenet, have been recently published, with the fullest evidence of their genuineness and exactness.

The Irish nation, though they are robbed of many of their legends by this authentic publication, are yet by it enabled to boast that they possess genuine history several centuries more ancient than any other European nation possesses in its present spoken language: they have exchanged their legendary antiquity for historical fame. Indeed, no other nation possesses any monument of its literature, in its present spoken language, which goes back within several centuries of the beginning of those chronicles. The ancient date of the MSS. concurs with the same internal proof as in the Saxon Chronicle to support the truth of the outline of their narrative : they are edited by the learned and upright * Doctor Charles O'Connor, the lineal descendant of Rodric O'Connor, king paramount of Ireland at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion. Dr. O'Connor lived only to complete this monument of the literature of his country, of which his forefathers were the last native and independent rulers.'--vol. i. pp. 86–89.

The establishment, or rather completion (for it would seem to have begun before) of the feudal system in the reign of the Conqueror, the commencement of the Crusades in the reign of his successor, and a curious legal inquiry into the question were the Crusades just ? afford to the learned author opportunities for the display of his well-known attainments in municipal and international law. The story of the far-famed Thomas-a-Becket is

frailties of my late invaluable friend, as acute, learned, diligent, and inflexibly honest an enquirer as ever explored historical truth.' * To whom we may justly apply, with small change, a line of Dryden:

6 True to his faith, but not a slave of Rome.”

[ocr errors]



summed up with judicial impartiality; it is sufficiently manifest that if the charge had been addressed to a jury, the verdict would have been "not guilty.” No history of these times could be written without glancing at that singular stage in the progress of society which is usually designated under the name of chivalry. The passage in which this interesting subject is discussed, is one of the best executed portions of this little volume.

• In the beginning of the twelfth century the only powerful body of lamen in Europe inhabited small fortresses scattered over the country, from which they rushed forth in quest of plunder, and where they returned to shelter themselves and their spoils. Never before were so many houses called “ little camps. Access to these dwellings was not easy. Intercourse between them, except for short orgies, was little known. Young women in that unsafe time were almost as much confined by the care of fathers, as in the East by the jealousy of husbands. The young warrior could but barely steal a glimpse of damsels of his own age and condition. Hence it naturally happened that these ladies were sometimes regarded, at least for a time, with a warmth of passion and depth of admiration unknown to happier times. . When men were engaged in the constant exercise of national or private war, superiority in valour was the virtue which most commanded esteem and applause. The timid female valued it as highly from awe as the sturdy warrior from fellow-feeling. It was the chief source of personal distinction; and a single failure in it carried with it a forfeiture of honour, a prize too bright to be bought by less than the unsullied prowess of a whole life. The excellent virtue of veracity was held in the same honour, and an offence against it was followed with the like shame ; for it was then rather admired as a proof of courage than esteemed as a part of integrity. They despised falsehood, as flowing from the fear of speaking truth. They imposed on women, under pain of ignominy, the inflexible practice of those severe virtues which they themselves least observed and least understood, partly to quiet their own jealousy, partly, also, because where love was a worship it required a more perfect purity in its object. Another point of honour grew up at the same period, that of fealty or loyalty, in some degree on the same grounds with that of veracity, which is akin to fidelity: in some measure, also, from habits of obedience in military service, strengthened in process of time by the inheritable character which was attached to office and command.

In so turbulent and insecure a state of society a few of a more generous nature were led, by their temper or their circumstances, to taste the delight of employing valour for the protection of the feeble against the spoiler. Women, or rather young and beautiful damsels, were admired for their attractions, pitied and defended for their weakness. The ministers of religion were protected because they were venerable, and because they were unwarlike. Religion itself, guarded only by unseen powers and remote punishments, claimed from the generous warrior the use of his sword against her human enemies. In time, all the weak became objects of defence. The pupils of the school of chivalry were taught to take up arms against wrong, however they might often be deceived in their judgment as


* Castella.

to what constituted it. The grand defect of this system, in its best state, was, that it was confined to so small a portion of mankind. In its purest form, it never prevailed among the majority of the class who exclusively pretended to it. Even among the few who were its most brilliant ornaments, it must not be supposed that it was found in that regular and consistent state which general description is insensibly led to bestow on it. But every modification of a society, in any degree lettered, works out for itself a correspondent literature, which bears the stamp of its character, and exhibits all its peculiarities. The writers who soon supplanted the biographers of saints, and became for their daythe delight of Europe, represented in their romances a picture of chivalry, in which the heroes were purified from their defects, and invested with powers to cope with preternatural beings, or to subdue the most tremendous monsters. These imaginary pictures were applied by admiring posterity to the favourite heroes of a past age.

Each generation placed perfect chivalry in the time of their fathers. Fiction was confounded with truth; and at length it came to be thought that the roads of Europe were really covered with wandering redressers of wrong in some former age, better and happier than that in which the believers and admirers had the fortune to live.

Casting from us these fooleries, we may reasonably believe that generous dispositions, disinterested attachments, prompting men to face danger and death for others, adorned by courteous manners, and delicate gallantry, which often made the service of a superior as pure from selfishness as the relief of an inferior, and obtained obedience from a warm heart, instead of buying it from a mercenary dependant, were more prevalent in the middle age, and partly owing to its disorders, than some of them can be, at least under the same form, in that better order of society, which has no such indispensable need of them, and which, therefore, more rarely affords scope for their exercise and cultivation. It is indubitably true, that the whole system of manners, which distinguishes the modern civilisation from the classical, and from the Oriental, has received a tinge from the usages and sentiments of chivalry, which, though mingled with peculiarities, not warranted by morality, is, on the whole, advantageous to the human race.

Chivalry is composed of the feelings and manners of the feudal system. It naturally happened, that the military tenants of the crown who served on horseback, and composed the main strength of a feudal army, had a plan of training for their youth, and formalities by which they were admitted to serve with their seniors. Hence the outward and mechanical modes of conferring knighthood: hence the fraternities of knights, sonie independant, most of them founded and patronized by princes, who afterwards arose. Among the smaller circumstances in the exterior of the system of feudality and chivalry, were hereditary surnames and armorial bearings; usages to which some tendency may be traced among many nations : but which were most natural and necessary where the vassals of each lord formed a sort of separate people; became more than commonly indispensable where all military commands depended on the distinction and array of communities and tribes, acting together by visible signs and short names, as in the crusades; which were not only the main scene on which the power of chivalry was displayed, but the school where its usages were taught most effectually, and spread through a wider circle. It is one of the most curious facts in literary history, that the writers of the romances

[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« ZurückWeiter »